Deborah Read: Wife of American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin

The second of seven children, Deborah Read was born about 1707 to John Read, a British carpenter, and his wife Sarah White Read. It’s said that she received little formal education. Almost nothing else is known about her childhood.

Deborah’s mother, Sarah White Read, made medicines. The evidence for this comes from Benjamin’s August 19, 1731 issue of The Pennsylvania Gazette, in which he advertised her “well-known ointment for the itch, with which she has cured abundance of people in and about this city for many years past.”

To historians of dermatology, the itch was scabies, the infection caused by the parasite sarcoptes scabiei.

She also made “several other sorts of ointments and salves.” These were sold at the Franklin shop. Moreover, she’d been making these medicines for years.

In 1723, Benjamin ran away from his apprenticeship to Philadelphia and eventually ended up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he met Deborah Read. While in Philadelphia, Franklin became a boarder in the Read household, and soon found work as an apprentice printer.

On September 1, 1730, the couple entered into a common law marriage, agreeing to live together as husband and wife without formal approval by religious or civil authorities. He and Deborah were still teenagers.

Deborah Franklin gave birth to two children. Their first child, a boy, named Francis Folger Franklin died in 1736 at age four of smallpox, a contagious disease that causes fever, vomiting and skin eruptions. Their daughter Sarah was born in 1743.

She also agreed to take in Benjamin’s older son, William, whom she and Benjamin would raise from the time he was a baby.

When Franklin began his frequent absences on government business, Deborah managed their businesses and sold such items as soap, medicines, chocolate, tea, cloth, feathers and lottery tickets.

Around 1773, Deborah began experiencing health problems. She died of a stroke on December 19, 1774.

On Christmas Eve William Franklin wrote to Ben, “I came here on Thursday last to attend the funeral of my poor old mother who died the Monday noon . . . She told me . . . that she never expected to see you unless you returned this winter, for she was sure she would not live till next summer. I heartily wish you had happened to come over in the fall, as I think the disappointment in that respect, preyed a good deal on her spirits.”.

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